The Ocean at the End of the Lane By Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

This book starts off as an adult fiction. The narrator with no name after attended a funeral has an hour to kill. So instinctively, he drives down his memory lane and into a farm house with a duck pond next to his old home. The girl whom he has met during his childhood Lettie Hempstock has not made a return (it is complicated). He has met her mother Mrs. Hempstock instead. That is the prologue. In the epilogue, he chats with Lettie’s grandmother Old Mrs. Hempstock before I presume returning to his families. Who was the funeral for? What happens to the story of Callie Anders, the girl whom he first kissed, the one who was red-cheeked, fair-haired? Where exactly is Lettie? There are tons of open questions that are never answered. The most obscured of it all is the duck pond that Lettie has insisted it to be an ocean (hence the title of the book). What is in that ‘ocean’?

Majority of the book is devoted to narrator’s childhood, when he was seven; on how he first met the Hempstock family. There was something supernatural about Lettie the small girl, her mother, and her grandmother. This part of the book reads like a young adult fiction. Kind of like a horror story that ended bad. There is heroic sacrifice. And there is childhood innocence. While The Ocean at the End of the Lane is beautifully written, engaging from beginning to end, I wish there was a resolution on the disappearance of Lettie. Or perhaps, the idea is not to have a resolution. Whatever happened in the narrator’s childhood stays in the past. Let not reality kills off our imagination. Was it even real? And not some boy’s imagination? The extract below may shed some light. I could only guess.

Curiously I turned in my seat and looked back: a single half-moon hung over the farmhouse, peaceful and pale and perfect.

I wondered where the illusion of the second moon had come from, but I only wondered for a moment, and then I dismissed it from my thoughts. Perhaps it was an afterimage, I decided, or a ghost: something that had stirred in my mind, for a moment, so powerfully that I believed it to be real, but now was gone, and faded into the past like a memory forgotten, or a shadow into the dusk.

Alena By Rachel Pastan

Alena - A novel

Time like this makes me treasure the fact that I write book summary, even when I feel lazy not to.

Some compare Alena to Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. If not for a book summary I have written last year, I would not be able to recall the connection. The commonality is striking (retrospectively speaking). Alena is dead yet her absence persists throughout the book, so is Rebecca. The narrators in both novels are female and are nameless. Nauquasset is a cutting edge art museum by the sea while Manderley is an estate – both dominate the respective stories. And then in Alena, there is Bernard who owns the museum and in Rebecca, Max.

Similarity between the two novels aside, looking at Alena alone, it is a book that engages me from beginning to end. It starts off with the narrator and Bernard running a little gallery in Russian Hill in present days. An extract taken from her dream last evening.

There I stood on the edge of the road, blue-black asphalt holding the heat. I could smell the tar melting, smell the pines and the brine of the sea, the restless, pungent, ever-present sea, primordial source of life and cause of so much death: floods and riptides, shipwrecks and suicides.

It is a rather unusual way to describe the sea. Throughout her dream, the contrast between life and death cannot be more obvious. In fact, this very first chapter sets the tone for the entire book. This very extract sums up where the entire book is heading!

As a reader, immediately I am hooked onto the narrator’s character as she traces her past starting as an assistant curator. How she traveled to Venice with a boss she disliked and in Venice, she met Bernard. There, she was offered a job as the chef curator in Nauquasset replacing Alena who has gone missing for two years, presumed dead.

I wanted to understand him – to understand Bernard. I felt connected to him by a bright thread, yet we could not have been more different. He was rick and I was poor. He knew everyone and everything, and I knew no one and nothing. What was I doing with him here in a restaurant in Padua? Why had he asked me? Was it pity? Whimsy? A game? What did he see when he looked at me? What did I look like? He could have chosen anyone. He’d had Alena. And now he had me.

Her relationship with Bernard is complex. At first, it smells romance, or a kind of strong adoration from the narrator’s perspective. Alena appears to have played big role in Bernard’s life. But what is it? Throughout the book, the narrator relentlessly trying to find out who Alena was from the people around her – even though almost everyone thinks that she is inadequate, as compares to Alena. How long until my bodily presence had half the substance her absence did? – lamented the narrator.

Storytelling aside, I enjoy reading Rachel Pastan’s writing style. Here is how she describes Nauquasset (which means ‘crown of the sea’ in Wampanoag) the first time – not a distorted version from the narrator’s dream at the beginning of the book but as it is.

The deep azure expanse was flecked and crested with white, and long streaks of gauzy pink cloud floated across the blazing sun, which just touched the rim of the water. A golden road stretched straight across the deepening blue, the near end apparently just below the bluff we were approaching, so that it seemed as though, if we hurried, we could take a quick stroll across the glittering surface toward the sun before it dropped out of sight. My heart bloomed in my chest, beating hard against the lattice of bone, as it had bloomed in the hot Uffizi as we stood before Botticelli’s Venus on her shell. And there, spread like a mantle across the shoulder of the bluff, the long silvered shape of the museum rose out of the sea of grass like the breaching back of a whale. Nauquasset.

The writer must have done much research on fine art. All the objects are described so beautifully as though I am seeing the art from the eyes of a curator. There is never a dull moment be it as she describing even the most mundane items like below or unfolding the mystery of who Alena was and what has happened to her.

I held the pan up. “Hungry?” I didn’t expect him to accept, but he did. I got out a second plate, beige with a brick-red border. The one already on the table was yellow with a design of poppies. both of them were ugly, though the yellow one seemed to be trying not to be, while the other didn’t seem to care. Which was worse?

While I may not fully recall what kind of person the narrator of Rebecca is, the narrator of this book turns out to be a smart woman with sharp eyes for details, someone who exhibits loyalty and with a kind heart. This book does not end where the book begins. So there is a part of me still wondering what has happened as the story ends.

The Silver Linings Playbook By Matthew Quick – An Engaging Read

An original story with unexpected plot

Let us begin with a quote from the book as it beautifully summarizes the theme of The Silver Linings Playbook.

“Life is not a PG feel-good movie. Real life often ends badly […]. And literature tries to document this reality, while showing us it is still possible for people to endure nobly.”

In my mind, the author does just that: telling us a story through Pat who believes that his life is a movie produced by God. With vigorous exercise and good behavior, God will eventually grant him a happy ending. One that reunites him with his wife Nikki. The story begins with Pat discharging from the mental institution – which he calls “bad place” – and slowly integrating back to his old life: his emotionally unstable father, his ever-loving mother, always-supportive brother, and best friend. No one tells him how long he has been away. He has no recollection on why he was locked up in the “bad place” and what has happens to his marriage. All he knows is that between Nikki and him, they are on “apart time”. His goal in life is to see through the end of “apart time” so that he can see his wife again.

Except, life is not as simple. There are good reasons why his mother has put away all his wedding photos, no one around him wants to mention Nikki, and Pat is having a hard time catching up what he has missed during his stay in the “bad place”.

It hurts to look at the clouds, but it also helps, like most things that cause pain. So I need to run, and as my lungs burn and my back rebels with that stabbing knife feeling and my leg muscles harden and the half inch of loose skin around my waist jiggles, I feel as though my penance for the day is being done and that maybe God will be pleased enough to lend me some help, which I think is why He has been showing me interesting clouds for the past week.

In the mist of all these confusion and necessary adaptation, Pat has met Tiffany who is recently widowed and is also mentally unstable. Since the story is narrated from Pat’s perspective, very little is known about the intention of Tiffany. She appears to be mysterious, yet another flawed character. The extract below shows an aspect of her character.

When [Tiffany] turns to face me, I think she is simply going to say good night, but she says, “Look, I haven’t dated since college, so I don’t know how this works.”

“How what works?”

“I’ve seen the way you’ve been looking at me. Don’t bullshit me, Pat. I live in the addition around back, which is completely separate from the house, so there’s no chance of my parents walking in on us. I hate the fact that you wore a football jersey to dinner, but you can fuck me as long as we turn the lights out first. Okay?”

I’m too shocked to speak, and for a long time we just stand there.

“Or not,” Tiffany adds just before she starts crying.

The Silver Linings Playbook is engaging in a few ways. First, I have always enjoyed reading books characterized with flawed characters. Second, the emotion these characters are going through is complex. It is like taking a roller coaster ride reading this book. Third, the plot is unpredictable. It is hard to guess where the author is heading although there is a particular path I may wish the book would resolve. As a bonus, this book is so well planned that it may be worthwhile to read again and everything seems to make sense – from clouds watching to Tiffany’s abrupt entry to the story.

Back to the main theme of the story, The Silver Linings Playbook is certainly not a PG feel-good read. It is a heartwarming read reminding us the importance of stay positive and look for the silver linings in life.

Suddenly Royal By Nichole Chase – How Would Kinsella Approach This?

Suddenly Royal

I thought all chick-lit are created equal. Then I realize that just because I love reading Sophie Kinsella‘s novels doesn’t mean that I enjoy reading any chick-lit. Believe it or not, I had no idea that Suddenly Royal is as such. The story line sounded like Princess Diaries, yes. The review seems ravishing. Some said they love how the author makes this story her own. Other said they love the twist within.

I don’t see any twist or whatsoever. It is a feel-good story that is predictable from beginning to end coupled with some steamy sex scenes that are neither tasteful nor artistic. When I read the followings, I knew I have picked up a chick-lit. One takeaway though, is that when you are hot and handsome, you can potentially get away with running your eyes up and down a girl’s body.

I shrugged out of my coat and that’s when I felt his eyes on me. Looking up, I realized Prince Yummy had indeed come for dinner. Jess and the undergrads had been wrong. He wasn’t yummy, he was delicious; a feast to be savored. Dark blond hair hung a smudge too long, eyes so blue it was like looking into the heart of a glacier. Built like the statue of David; the contours of his suit hugging every delicious muscle. Laugh lines around his mouth and eyes brought him into the realm of humanity, and gave him a personality. As his eyes ran over my face and down my body slowly, heat washed over my skin. When I handed the jacket to the maitre d’ i felt naked. There was something about his bright blue eyes that left me feeling exposed.

Samantha is a biology graduate specialized in raptor. She works hard for her degree and she has a father with cancer to take care of. Out of nowhere, the royal members of Lilaria (somewhere in Europe) have sought her out in America claiming that she is a royal descendant. Samantha has a decision to make. Stay in US or head to Lilaria claim her title and land. To spice up the deal, the Lilarian royalty has promised to provide good medical treatment for her father. At the same time, the crown prince of Lilarian seems to have fallen in love with her!

But here comes the dilemma. Samantha wants to finish her study and she thinks that falling in love with a prince is bad idea. Because … because she thinks the prince would need a queen who is … a royalty (and she is not?) and a born-and-breed Lilarian (since when a prince must marry someone from his countries?)

Throughout the book, I could not help but to think, how would Sophie Kinsella write this book? Here is my take.

Samantha would have a tough time integrating into the royalty circle since she is not born royal (unlike this story whereby she has no problem with the royal politics as a commoner). She would have a boyfriend but yet, intrigued by Prince Charming. Then, some evil force from within Lilaria would strip her title. Everyone including Prince Charming would despise her. And then, Samantha would do something extraordinary to save Lilaria from this evil force out of selflessness. There will be happy ever after between Samantha and her love interest.

Unfortunately, Suddenly Royal does not have this level of drama.

The Shoemaker’s Wife By Adriana Trigiani – As Emotional As Life Itself

An emotional novel

I do not recall in recent years reading a book that moves me as much as The Shoemaker’s Wife does.  It is quite possibly the saddest novel I have read, on par with Romeo & Juliet.  OK.  Not the entire book is sad.  The majority part of the story is a celebration of life and the journey of struggle and triumph.  But the sad part is really sad.  I have lost sleep reading this.  I fought hard not to cry inside a cafe reading this.  After I have finished reading the book, I felt like taking a day off from work and eating ice-cream from a tub instead.

In The Shoemaker’s Wife, Adriana Trigiani tells a story inspired by her grandparents Lucia and Carlo’s love and life story.  The setting is extraordinary.  It reads like an epic love story that only the magical hands of fate can weave.  Lucia and Carlo’s characters were born in Italy.  They met once in their homeland and parted way due to unforeseeable circumstances.  Somehow, they managed to meet again in America and then they got separated.  Each having their own relationships with someone else and yet, fate brought them back together time and time again.

This book is more than a story of love.  Set in the early nineties, Adriana’s grandfather was brought up in a convent together with his brother.  While his brother was a devout Catholic planning to be a priest, Carlo did not believe in God.  This sense of conflict between faith and non-believer is imbued deep inside and throughout the story, which is as real as life itself.  Meanwhile, Adriana’s grandmother was brought up from a poor Catholic family.  Being the eldest daughter, Lucia worked hard to help her parents to provide for the family and take care of her siblings.  Lucia must be one of the strongest female character I have come to read.  In order to give her family a chance to build a place called home, Lucia accompanied her father to come to America, a journey that almost killed her.

Once the backdrop has switched to America, the mood has changed.  It is hope and opportunity in the land of the America.  To read this part of The Shoemaker’s Wife is like reading what the American dream is all about.  Adriana Trigiani tells it through the eyes of the migrants.  Hardworking pays off.  So is innovation and the desire to dream big.  Those who made it live in luxury and richness.  New friendships are made.  Alliance are formed.  People look out for each other.  America is a dream for many and many have found a new home in America.

In as much as it is a tale of hope and dream, it is also a tale of life and death.  Going through the two world wars, relationships and what holds dear to the hearts have become ever more precious.  My heart weeps for what the characters have been through.  It is emotional because behind every closed door, behind every happy face that we see everyday are the untold stories of struggle and sorrow.  How much you can feel for the characters would depend on what you have experienced in life thus far.  Having said that, I have gained more insights on what others may have been through under their unique circumstances.

I can imagine a lot of research has done prior to this project.  All the details of the past – be it as the town and architecture, food and music, costumes and fashion, mode of transportation and the then-state of migrants – are vividly described.  There is this surreal feeling that it is as though I am seeing the nineties through Lucia and Carlo’s eyes.  I do not know how much of the story is authentic to author’s grandparents’ lives and how much of it is crafted with wild imagination. Adriana Trigiani has done something smart about the approach.  She has used characters with different names to represent her grandparents.  Therefore, she can have the artistic license to fill up the gaps without getting into the question of: Did her grandparents really do that?

All in all, The Shoemaker’s Wife is a fulfilling read.  It is as emotional as life itself.